Intellectual Property

Q: How Is Wikipedia Like the Stasi? A: They're Both Agents of Socialism. Not.

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Last week, Reason's Jesse Walker took Wired/digital culture heavyweight Kevin Kelly to task for using the term socialism to describe voluntary, non-profit-driven forms of collaboration such as Wikipedia (created, as Reason readers know, by a Rand-grokkin' entrepreneur).

Jesse wrote in part:

Given the unpopularity of the term socialism on these shores, I don't think it particularly constructive to use it to describe Kiva and Wikipedia. And Kelly doesn't grapple as much as he should with the fact that many of the platforms he cites are owned and operated by proprietary, profit-seeking companies. On the other hand, if he can persuade the trendies who've been turning toward socialism since the economic crisis began that this is what they're really for, power to him.

Cyberlegal guru Larry Lessig (interviewed by Jesse for Reason here) weighs in with a long and useful response to Kelly, really underscoring that promiscuous and erroneous use of terms as charged as socialism is wrong in all sorts of ways. Most important, notes the force behind the Creative Commons movement:

Coercive government action is—IMHO—a necessary condition of something being "socialism." It isn't sufficient—there is plenty of coercive governmental action that doesn't qualify as socialism, like raising taxes to fund national defense, or to pay the police. But if you're calling something "socialist," then a requirement for using that term correctly—meaning in the way it is understood at least by people who don't take the time to read a 3,500 word essay that redefines the term—is to be able to point to the coercive state action that produces the thing you're talking about….

Now is not the time to engage in a playful redefinition of a term that has such a distinctive and clear sense. Whatever "socialism" could have become, had it not been hijacked by revolutions in the east, what it is in the minds of 95% of America is not what Wikipedia is.

And indeed, when I look around at the real socialism of the past decade, I am almost Declan-esque in my revulsion towards it: America has plenty of "socialism." The most recent versions we should all be very skeptical of. This is the general practice of socializing risk, and privatizing benefits. I'd be happy to join the "anti-socialist" movement if we could agree to end that perversion first.

But that deal notwithstanding, I will never agree to call what millions have voluntarily created on the Net "socialism." That term insults the creators, and confuses the rest.

Whole thing here.

NEXT: Price of Prohibition

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  1. I think in order for something to be called “socialist” you have to be able to make a movie like the The Lives Of Others about it. That seems like a good proxy for me at least. That’s why I think that the term is misapplied to the Obama administration; they are social democrats as best as I can tell (as that term is used today, not as it was used historically), an ideology which has its own set of problems.

  2. I thought that socialism simply meant the public ownership of the means of production?

  3. DM,

    That is a major component yeah. But there are also “as practiced” considerations to take into account.

  4. I thought that socialism simply meant the public ownership of the means of production?

    No, that’s capitalism.

    Socialism is state ownership of the means of production.

  5. Words, of course, can change their meaning over time. Those of us who grew up with the Soviet Union and Socialist Europe will no doubt associate “socialism” with government intervention. But those days are fading rapidly. The younger generations may be reverting to the original definition of “socialism”, which implied a lack of government intervention, or even “anarchy”. The pre-Sex Pistols definition of “anarchy”, that is…

  6. this stupid argument.. again?

    Damn you! I’m not playing your stupid, orwellian “lets redefine the meaning of words every 10 years”. I’m sticking to my 1875 Gotha version.

    Or the 1918 pre-NEP version when I’m feeling young.

  7. and no Marcello… utopian socialism was never the standard definition for more than 5 minutes..

  8. OK, lets try this…

    10 Conditions For Transition To Communism

    1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
    2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
    3. Abolition of all right of inheritance.
    4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
    5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
    6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
    7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
    8. Equal liability of all to labour. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
    9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equal distribution of the population over the country.
    10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production.[7]

  9. The younger generations may be reverting to the original definition of “socialism”, which implied a lack of government intervention,

    Ah, the old “after the state seizes total control, it will whither away” thing. Its happened so often, after all . . . .

  10. how about we look up the definition of “socialism” in wikipedia?

    …and change it if we don’t like it.

  11. “Voluntary” redistribution of wealth? that’s like voluntary conscription… but hey, maybe Obama will show you guys how that works.

  12. C’mon, roy, language evolves, always has, always will. Not even the Soviets could stop that…

  13. SPUCATUM TAURI

  14. What is all the fuss about? Roy is absolutely correct. Therefore, the impostiion of the income tax, in and of itself, is socialism.

    Larry Lessig is just being intellectually inconsistent in proclaiming that, on the one hand, in order for something to be properly labeled as socialism, it must involve some coercion on the part of the state, while on the other hand, he says that the income tax does not count becuase it goes to national defense or paying the police.

    Real coherent there Mr. Lessig. EPIC FAIL.

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  16. Just as most people don’t think of classical liberals when they hear the term liberal nowadays, so, too, do people tend to conflate “socialism” with state socialism.

    Voluntary socialisms of many stripes have been around for a long time, and while I think it is wise to avoid the term in order to lessen confusion among those who are ignorant of the gradations of political taxonomy, referring to net-mutualism that way is technically correct.

    Kevin

  17. I read the Kevin Kelly essay and the crucial distinction he never made was the difference between voluntary coordinated action and state mandated action. One is good and the other bad, but there’s some flaw in his thinking that makes him unable to spot the difference.

  18. “Socialism is state ownership of the means of production.”

    Actually, I’d call that Communism. And Capitalism is the PRIVATE ownership of the means of production.

    Socialism, in its intended form, or at least in the form that its supporters claim, would be the truly public ownership of the means of production, meaning that both the risk and the profits are in the hands of the “the public” at large.

    How they intend to accomplish this without any form of “the state” being involved, I’ve never quite understood, but I just assume it has something to do with Swiss-style direct Democracy.

  19. Socialism, in its intended form, or at least in the form that its supporters claim, would be the truly public ownership of the means of production, meaning that both the risk and the profits are in the hands of the “the public” at large.

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  21. Socialism, in its intended form, or at least in the form that its supporters claim, would be the truly public ownership of the means of production, meaning that both the risk and the profits are in the hands of the “the public” at large.

    Sweet! This means we each get a 1/300 millionth share in every going concern in the country, right? I’m gonna do nothing but go to shareholder meetings!

  22. “Coercive government action is-IMHO-a necessary condition of something being “socialism.” It isn’t sufficient-there is plenty of coercive governmental action that doesn’t qualify as socialism, like raising taxes to fund national defense, or to pay the police.”

    This is very murky thinking. It assumes that any government institution which the author likes or considers normal is therefore not socialism. The term becomes meaningless name-calling.

  23. Coercive government action is-IMHO-a necessary condition of something being “socialism.” It isn’t sufficient-there is plenty of coercive governmental action that doesn’t qualify as socialism, like raising taxes to fund national defense, or to pay the police.

    This is very murky thinking. It assumes that any government institution which the author likes or considers normal is therefore not socialism. The term becomes meaningless name-calling.

    Do you people really not understand the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions?

    He states that lots of what government does is coercive, but not everything the government does is socialism. What’s murky about that?

    He’s not engaging in “meaningless name-calling.” He’s trying to define and preserve the meaning of an important term in our political discourse. That is all. Its not like he’s saying the non-socialistic stuff government does is A-OK. Hell, he says its coercive, hardly a term of approval.

  24. Whatever “socialism” could have become, had it not been hijacked by revolutions in the east, what it is in the minds of 95% of America is not what Wikipedia is.

    I don’t think this is true at all, based on the political conversations I’ve had. Most people of my experience use the word “communism” to describe the “revolutions in the east,” and believe “socialism” to be something somewhat different.

    I think a fairly high percentage of people would describe a voluntary coordinated action not undertaken for profit as “socialism.” Whether they’re right or wrong is another debate, but so long as Lessig is using the average American’s understanding of the word as part of his argument, I think he’s way off base.

  25. He states that lots of what government does is coercive, but not everything the government does is socialism. What’s murky about that?

    Well, it’s murky because he doesn’t really define what sorts of government interventions count as “socialism” and which do not. It sounds to me, as it did to Brad, like he’s saying “socialism means things the government does coercively that I don’t like. Things I think are necessary for the government to do don’t qualify as socialism.”

  26. Voluntary socialisms of many stripes have been around for a long time

    They’ve been around on paper, but in actual practice voluntary socialism is extremely rare and never existed outside of tiny communities.

  27. There’s a bit in the Illuminatus Trilogy where
    one character says something to the effect of

    Marx was wrong, the means of production dont dictate progress its the chains of communication

    a pretty insightful comment for the late 60’s 70’s before seeing the soviet states crumble and cybernetics in the capitalist world exponentially evolve

    seems a bit like the author of the article was trying to say something similar but lacked the uber-enlightenment of messrs Wilson and O’Shea and just said “well the web its a bit like socialism innit”

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